Looking at Cliff Palace from above does not prepare you for how large it is. The alcove itself is 89 feet deep and 59 feet high. The complex is 288 feet long with 150 rooms and 23 kivas. One tower has four stories.
Cliff Palace was used for only about 75 years—from around A.D. 1190 to 1280. Because so few of the rooms show evidence of family life and there are so many kivas, it is believed that it had ceremonial use. The walls aren't talking though, so scientists have to piece together information to make educated guesses.
Having recently read House of Rain, by Craig Childs, where he explores the Anasazi (now referred to as Ancestral Puebloans or Hisatsinom) ruins and the latest scholarly research about this group of people, I was curious to return to some of these places where they once lived. As a result of a debilitating drought in the 13th century, people in the Mesa Verde area and others moved into defensible positions and to the last places of water.
When I worked at Lake Powell we found many small graneries, a few small iving quarters and kivas as we explored on weekends off. Those do not prepare you for the elaborate ruins at Mesa Verde. And walking amonst the ruins, imagining what it would be like to live here, to grind corn and tend to daily tasks, to use hand and toe holds in the cliffs to ascend the mesa to care for crops, is mind boggling. From Childs book and others, I can better imagine the contents—basketery and pottery, weapons, looms, turkeys, and trade goods. The ruins the public sees are bare of all contents, long taken by pot hunters or stored away in museum collections.
Prior to building Cliff Palace the Ancestral Puebloans lived on top of the mesa for most of six centuries. Cliff Palace, and other alcove dwellings, were among the last sites to be occupied in Mesa Verde. By A.D. 1300 nearly everyone was gone from this area. Where did they go? What really happened? If only walls could talk! Being here, though, gives you a sense of the mystery.